Visions of the Future

Yesterday, I touched on time travel, the present we inherit from the past, and our perceptions of time. I want to start with perception today, as I think about other aspects of time travel in fiction.

Meanwhile, my fiancé reminds me that we’re supposed to be watching Back to the Future III today, so therefore I have to be quick. Time. Never enough of it.

We are all subject to time. Whatever you measure it with, it slices our experience of the world into regular segments, neatly numbered. We can spend it or save it, but we can’t survive it – but we can experience it at different speeds.

Time drags when we’re bored, and flies when we’re busy. For all that our divisions of time are rational, our perception of time is fundamentally illogical. And we can escape it for a while by slipping into stories.

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The Turn of the Screw: How a Full Revolution of Feminist Perspectives on Pornography Provides the New Frontier for Feminism

(Note: Dylan is a lady! Oh, Americans and their male first names for women. Also, I’m absolutely unapologetic about the turn/revolution puns in the title of this piece.)

Dylan Ryan’s How I Became a Feminist Porn Star is one of the most interesting articles touching on the subject of feminism that I’ve read in a very long time. And not simply interesting because it deals with the relationship between feminism and pornography – something that I feel the second wave of feminism dealt with appallingly – but because it touches on public perceptions of feminism and what it means or might have meant and what it actually doesn’t mean at all.

Some background: hello, my name is Joy, and I’m a feminist. But don’t worry! I’m really educated about it, and I really like people of all genders! And I get really, really frustrated with many of the ways that feminism is presented and discussed in the media and by people I have met – and some of whom I’m very close to – and the very negative perceptions that close down people’s preparedness to discuss issues of feminism but aren’t actually anything to do with feminism at all.

In case you haven’t read the article above, I’ll summarise it for you here: Dylan Ryan is a woman who began performing in porn films that were different, and had been filmed to celebrate more authentic sexuality than the mainstream, ten-a-penny, heterosexual-male-viewership kind, which heavily objectifies female performers (not just in the ‘cosmetic surgery and make-up’ sense, but in the ‘sex is done to them rather than by them’ sense) and many women find unappealing to watch (I’m sure men do, too, but Ryan speaks generally of her conversations with other women). One of the people she discussed things with was Shine Louise Houston, who shortly began making feminist porn films and invited Ryan to star in them, and gradually they built up a name for themselves of having new ways of producing porn, focused on the pleasure and choices of the performers and seeking to provide an alternative that they felt was more authentic in its depiction of the way people enjoy sex together. Ryan herself didn’t identify this as a feminist position for several years – her understanding of feminism was heavily coloured by second-wave feminism and in particular Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, radical feminists who were extremely anti-porn, and who have often been interpreted as anti-heterosexual sex. MacKinnon and Dworkin wrote extremely emotive pieces suggesting that all male sexuality was based on violence. Ryan’s realisation that her pornography is feminist  forms the ending of the article:

After years of believing that all or most feminists disapproved of what I was doing with my life, it took a moment on a stage beneath a bright spotlight to realize that many feminists not only approved of, but appreciated, what I was doing.

This is, for me, the most crucial part of Ryan’s article: it is not until she wins a category at the Feminist Porn Awards that she realises that what she’s been doing is truly feminism, despite the fact that – throughout her article – the focus on intelligent discussion, authenticity, agency and choice are at the heart of her motivations to be part of a new kind of porn.

To me, it is clear that she is making feminist choices from the start – perhaps that’s because I’ve studied feminism to advanced degree level. And yet Ryan’s degree-level ‘women’s studies’ (a phrase I absolutely hate, because feminism isn’t just for women and it’s not just women who should be studying it) seemed to focus largely on Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, representatives of a radical feminism that typefies the stereotype of ‘bra-burning’ and ‘man-hating’ extremism – a type that still sees anybody who declares themselves a feminist inviting the hateful label ‘femenazi’. It is, for me, quite firmly a thing of the past – a history that we should learn from but never, ever re-visit. I don’t believe that their radical views are the whole of feminism – but they are evidence that feminism isn’t safe from extremism or fundamentalism, and it’s something that many feminists stand firmly against. 

Andrea Dworkin argued that pornography was necessarily linked to violence against women, in particular the act of rape:

Contemporary pornography strictly and literally conforms to the word’s root meaning: the graphic depiction of vile whores, or, in our language, sluts, cows (as in: sexual cattle, sexual chattel), cunts. The word has not changed its meaning […] The word pornography does not have any other meaning than the one cited here, the graphic depiction of the lowest whores. Whores exist to serve men sexually. Whores exist only within a framework of male sexual domination. Indeed, outside that framework the notion of whores would be absurd and the usage of women as whores would be impossible. […] The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘sexual representations’ or ‘depictions of sex’ emphasizes only that that the valuation of women as low whores is widespread and that the sexuality of women is perceived as low and whorish in and of itself. The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘depictions of the erotic’ means only that the debasing of women is held to be the real pleasure of sex. (Andrea Dworkin, ‘Pornography’ [1981], in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 325-327).

I disagree with almost everything that Dworkin wrote in this quotation. You may have noted her insistence on repetition, and her refusal to cite exterior references but simply build her argument upon itself by constantly reinforcing her own position. She even refuses to acknowledge that the meaning of words changes over time, or that people could possibly use the word ‘pornography’ in all of the contexts that she rejects. Pornography, she argues, does and must only be used in the way that she believes it is used, which is necessarily linked to her thesis of all people in a male-dominated system viewing women as low and whorish. While it is clear that in contemporary society there are problems in the depictions of women in pornography (and in pornographic depictions in other media), and there are well-document problems to do with victim-blaming in rape cases and the cultural double standard of calling women with many sexual partners ‘sluts’ where men are celebrated for being ‘studs’, Dworkin’s extremely narrow focus provides no way of dealing with any of these issues, because it rejects the opinions of people who are not herself. And it’s ludicrous to think that if women ruled the world, there would be no sex workers. Outside a male-dominated framework it would be impossible to use women as whores? I don’t believe it. I believe that women would be able to use women as whores, just they are able to use men as whores, as men are able to use men as whores. I’d like to return to one of her points for a moment. Read this again:

The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘sexual representations’ or ‘depictions of sex’ emphasizes only that that the valuation of women as low whores is widespread and that the sexuality of women is perceived as low and whorish in and of itself. The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘depictions of the erotic’ means only that the debasing of women is held to be the real pleasure of sex.

Translation: the fact that people don’t agree that pornography is necessarily linked to the sexual debasement of women is proof, for Dworkin, that pornography is linked to the sexual debasement of women. Her form of feminism is a closed loop that allows no space for discussion or disagreement, despite the fact that I sincerely doubt that most people who watch porn want to watch anything vile; rather, they want to watch something ‘hot’, something pleasurable, something that they don’t have to think too hard about so that it will get them off. Mainstream porn is actually pretty vanilla – but Dworkin won’t have any of it. Treating all feminists like they’re this kind of feminist is like treating all of the Irish as terrorists because of what happened in the ’70s: a grossly inaccurate universalistion. And yet, because Dworkin and MacKinnon were the loudest voices, because they were emotive and not logical (which would have forced them to compromise their polemical style, which would therefore have made it less effective), this is what people think feminism is about – and it drives me up the wall. 

Dworkin also wrote that heterosexual sex was an insult to the female body despite, you know, the millions of years of evolution that have nothing to do with conscious sexuality, or the culturally-determined oppression of human women. Now, I don’t deny that Dworkin had some truly horrible experiences at the hands of men in her life. She did – she experienced the stuff of nightmares, and it is not to be taken lightly. But I still don’t believe that the fact that she suffered appalling domestic abuse allows her to indict all men as potential rapists, and to argue that all male sexuality is violent. Sex crime is violent, yes. But sex is not. Dworkin’s view is a narrow focus, which is perhaps why it’s so easy to publicise. But I don’t believe that she is right to say what she does. To campaign against domestic abuse, yes, to support lesbian right, yes! To argue that half of the human species automatically and altogether links sexuality with violence against the other half of the human species and that ways of depicting that sexuality are always and will be violent – no. No, no, no.

I can’t help but feel that Dworkin’s position isn’t logical, and is evidence of the way that radical feminism picks and chooses its methodologies – which is easy to do when, as in this case, you refer no to external facts or factors – which is why I always cite my sources and try to lay out my analysis so that you can see where I’ve got my conclusions from, so that you can work from the same material as me and see whether you agree or not. What’s even worse is that it enables other kinds of narrow focuses, which frankly help nobody at all. Radical feminists following in Dworkin’s footsteps have done despicable things like banning transgender women from their conferences because ‘they aren’t really female’. They did this in 2012, ladies and gentlemen, using exactly the same rhetoric as the religious right that is the very image of the mythical patriarchy that feminism, particularly radical feminism, is supposed to hate so much. The only people permitted to attend RadFem 2012 were “women born as women living as women”. (There’s an excellent and very sensitive piece here, written by Ruth Pearce in response to all of the fallout when feminism exploded on the internet in response to the fact that a known preacher of transphobia was one of the speakers at the radical feminist conference. Ruth manages to be thoughtful, respectful and logical while discussing her issues as a transgender woman with the way radical feminism treats her. Guess how appalling some of the comments on that post are? Yeah, you’re on the internet, I’m sure you get the picture.)

Because I feel a need for completeness and because I do like to cite my sources, I’m also going to quote Catharine MacKinnon. Catharine MacKinnon writes extremely emotively on the subject of male sexuality as sexual violence, with women necessarily as victims. I have never been so angry in my life as I have when reading her ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, because of the manner in which she appropriates the act of rape to make her points, claiming that she’s somehow revealing or defending the trauma of abused women when actually she’s buying into a system that denies rape victims the chance to speak for themselves because she says that her kind of feminism has already spoken for them. She believes that ‘the male sexual role […] centers on aggressive intrusion on those with less power’ (Catharine MacKinnon, ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 351-358). Or, worse: ‘What is understood as violation, conventionally penetration and intercourse, defines the paradigmatic sexual encounter’ (‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, p. 354). She writes of all men as potential rapists and all women not simply as potential rape victims, but as actual rape victims. Worse, she continually uses the rhetoric of the anger, horror and fear surrounding rape to reinforce her points:

If a woman has ever been raped, ever, does a penis ever enter her without some body memory, if not a flashback then the effort of keeping it back; or does she hurry up or keep trying, feeling something gaining on her, trying to make it come out right? If a woman has ever been raped, does she ever fully regain the feeling of physical integrity, of self-respect, of having what she wants count somewhere, of being able to make herself clear to those who have not gone through what she has gone through, of living in a fair society, of equality? (‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, p. 357)

These long and complicated questions are extremely emotive, but they are also empty, because she does not answer them or even invite answers to them, and they don’t even make grammatical sense – they are hard to understand and impossible to answer. MacKinnon is using the image of the raped woman just as she tries to argue that a man has used a woman in order to bring her to the state ‘raped’, and the hypocrisy of it is appalling. Not least because yes, people are raped, men and women and genderqueer and trans people are raped, and it is appalling and traumatic, but it does not always have to mark them forever. They can recover. We can recover. We will not always flinch every time something sexual happens, we do regain a sense of integrity and self-respect and the enjoyment of sex with whomever we choose to have sex with, but MacKinnon conveniently glosses over this for the sole reason that it does not agree with her thesis, and that is despicable. She is using the image of rape in the same way that she argues women are used in rape.

This is another closed loop: you must be swept along by MacKinnon’s thesis because, hell, if she doesn’t stop to answer her own questions, nor should you. By using rape in the way that she does, MacKinnon has deployed a deeply difficult and emotional situation, something that will get people feeling upset and righteous, to reinforce the rhetoric of her piece. If she asked ‘If a woman has ever crashed a car, ever, does she ever sit in a car without some body memory, if not a flashback then the effort of keeping it back; or does she hurry up and keep trying to drive’, etc, etc, we see what a pointless question it is. She offers no answer, does not allow rape victims to speak for themselves, and appropriates the deep and difficult emotions surrounding sexual trauma for her own political ends. It is not appropriate. I do not understand why this argument is lauded.

This is why I reject radical feminism: I find it exclusive, dogmatic, rhetorically emotive, self-referential, gender-essentialist and fundamentally illogical in its refusal to refer to exterior sources or to allow spaces for discussion and non-essential views of gender. Because I don’t believe that feminism should wholly be based on gender, particularly not on a normative binary of gender, and I don’t even think that it has to be very extreme. And yet this is what people seem to think of when I say I’m a feminist; this is why I have to put up with a male friend of mine saying ‘I fucking hate feminism, it just means women can cry in the office and get what they want when men just man up and get on with things but then don’t get what they want because they don’t whine’, and when I point out that, actually, most feminists would probably prefer a meritocracy rather than a reliance on outmoded gender stereotypes he says ‘oh God I just hate feminism, okay’ because he doesn’t know what it means but if I try to tell him his warped view of, yes, a very warped time of feminism is actually kinda stupid, well, I’ll be insulting him, and that won’t help anything, and his view of feminism will get even worse.

Sometimes feminism is about learning when to listen and not to speak – particularly when it helps you to realise the major flaws within feminism itself, which, actually, that instance, was pretty enlightening. It made me realise that feminism needs much better marketing – and it needs feminists not to get angry, defensive or insulting when they try to talk to others about it. Feminism is not about proving that feminists are correct. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned through being a teacher, it’s that nothing puts peoples’ backs up like someone trying to prove them wrong, and people who don’t listen aren’t much use to any ideological movement.)

Feminism is not about trying to form a society that signs up to one particular view of gender and of women, at all (particularly not a ‘totalitarian’ state, so really the label ‘femenazi’ makes absolutely no sense at all). It is about trying to promote democratic, meritocratic social change that dismantles stereotypes of, and defies discrimination based on, gender, class and race (Ryan’s challenges in coming to view herself as part of a privileged white majority is another crucial part of the article above, but this one is already long enough, so it will have to wait for another time. I don’t want you to think that I don’t know about the problems of white privilege and middle-class privilege in feminism or even pornography, though, so I thought I’d bring it up nonetheless). Feminism has space to intersect with postcolonial and socialist and ecological and technologist movements; it is very flexible and it is very interesting.

For me, feminism is about discussion – with particular emphasis, sometimes, on Socratic irony – and about finding out what people really think, and what they really think of feminism, because I’ve found that a lot of people actually have a lot of views that sign up to feminism’s targets without necessarily signing up to their mailing list. It’s about having a lot of patience, and respecting other peoples’ point of view and their right to express it even when you disagree, so that you know exactly how to disagree, politely and with reference to excellent source materials, in the future. It’s not about lecturing them on how feminism is the right way even though I believe it is able to help us all. It’s not about being able to shout the loudest, it’s about being able to initiate discussions about things being unequal, where people are unfairly disadvantaged or discriminated against based purely on institutionalised views of gender and where gender politics meets race politics and class politics. Feminism is about social change, it is democratic, it supports meritocracy; it supports efforts to promote more women, and people of non-cis-straight-male identity, in life and in literature (yes, pornography is literature) who aren’t defined by being emotional, maternal or treated differently from men in life or in literature. And, yes, that’s all there is to it.

So it is very interesting to me that Dylan Ryan makes feminist choices without thinking that she’s a feminist, because it proves to me that feminism has done really poorly out of some bad publicity in the ’70s and ’80s and it’s never really got over that. It also suggests to me that the problems of feminism – its arguments amongst its own different arms, as it were – haven’t been very well publicised outside feminism itself. Because what’s also caught my eye about all this is that in 1979 Angela Carter published a book about pornography in the service of women and feminism, The Sadeian Woman, ‘a late-twentieth-century interpretation of some of the problems [the Marquis de Sade] raises about the culturally determined nature of women and the relations between men and women that result from it’ (The Sadeian Woman (London: Virago, 2009), p. 1). It is sometimes published as The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, or with the subtitle ‘An Exercise in Cultural History’, and radical feminists mauled it and hated her for what she said. I’ve just spend a long time trying to find a few pithy quotations, but I’m afraid they’re all too good. I can’t find just one that will summarise her many complex points, so I’m trying to find a small selection that will illustrate them without making this article the length of War and Peace. A good one is the opening sentence:

Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers, as if sexual relations were not necessarily an expression of social relations, as if sex itself were an external fact, one as immutable as the weather, creating human practice but never a part of it. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 3)

I’ve found a few more, carefully culled to try to illustrate one of Carter’s primary points without adding too many words to this article:

If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission […] All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of [these myths] gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. (The Sadeian Woman, pp. 5-6)

The emotional illogicality of buying into mother / fruitful / gender essential myths is a continuing theme in Carter’s work.

The notion of the universality of human experience is a confidence trick and the notion of the universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 13)

Carter goes on to point that pornography, by employing mainstream gender stereotypes, often buys into this false universalisation. This is part of what many feminists oppose in pornography, whether by condemning it, as Dworkin did, or trying to find a way to produce feminism pornography, as Ryan did.

It is fair to say that, when pornography serves – as with very rare exception it always does – to reinforce the prevailing system of values and ideas in a given society, it is tolerated; and when it does not, it is banned. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 20)

So, whatever the surface falsity of pornography, it is impossible for it to fail to reveal sexual reality at an unconscious level, and this reality may be very unpleasant indeed. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 23)

…the more the literary arts of plotting and characterisation are used to shape the material of pornography, the more the pornographer himself is faced with the moral contradictions inherent in real sexual encounters. Out of this dilemma, a moral pornographer might be born. The moral pornographer would be an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders, and projects a model of the way that such a world might work. (The Sadeian Woman pp. 21-22)

Now, Carter isn’t trying to argue that the Marquis de Sade is a moral pornographer: she largely points out that in all of his sadistic porn, he gives his female characters the same agency as his male characters to perform sexual and/or appalling acts on other people of any gender. Carter reads de Sade’s work as a black satire on the human condition, and she explores this curious equal footing to derive pleasure from sex and to engage in sadistic practices in terms of second-wave feminism’s major concerns. One interesting point is that de Sade treats female sexuality and female reproductive potential as two very different things, which is something that we think of as a C20th invention, and part of the sexual revolution. The Sadeian Woman is one of my favourite books, and I’m not sure if it makes me happy or sad that thirty-four years later the circle’s come around and once again we’re having the discussion about feminism and pornography, objectification and choice, authenticity and change.

It makes me happy because it seems that things have improved in many ways; the position occupied by Angela Carter and Dylan Ryan is the prevailing view this time, and the mainstream of feminism is not the angry, illogical mess that it was. It makes me happy that there is a feminist establishment and that it sets up liberal and liberating things like the Feminist Porn Awards. But it makes me sad because we’ve had thirty, forty years and that stereotype is still the way feminism is perceived: even in making feminist choices Ryan did not identify as a feminist until she was wholly welcomed into the feminist establishment by winning an award.

Feminism has become an establishment, and yet it hasn’t managed to re-establish itself in popular culture in a way that represents what it actually is. Perhaps this is because there are many different schools and sub-groups – perhaps this is because people don’t talk about it enough in life or outside the establishment itself. But it needs to establish itself properly, in media and in society, and not in a way that puts people’s backs up. Anita Sarkeesian, of Feminist Frequency, is an interesting example of this: I admire her very much, and find her work extremely interesting, but she does get snarky – and sometimes, a little superior – about her views, about the views of general people, and all of the solid academic arguments in the world aren’t going to get the message through if people object to someone’s tone. I’m absolutely not trying to say that the fact that she’s kinda sarcastic is what led to the torrent of abuse she received during the FemFreq Kickstarter – what I’m trying to say is that I know that it’s turned people away from her messages, because they felt like they were being talked down to or treated like one of some undereducated and woman-oppressing majority simply because they didn’t already subscribe to feminism. I’m also not trying to say that she’s not allowed to be sarcastic! Goodness knows I’m a dreadfully sarcastic person most of the time. But I try not to be sarcastic or emotional when I discuss such things, because I don’t want people to respond to my tone and get angry, I’d rather they listened to my words and got thoughtful.

I’m not saying that people aren’t allowed to be angry when they discuss things, either. But I do find that when people are angry and they challenge people and display their anger, well, a lot of people end up arguing and nothing constructive happens. I’ve come to believe that I have to rise above it and be logical in order to make a difference, rather than getting upset and turning it back to personal issues and emotional responses. I know people who disagree with me about this – I know people who believe I’m trying to tell them that I’m denying them their right to be angry about things that they have every right to be angry about. I promise you: I’m not trying to do this. If things make you angry – be angry, but you don’t have to be angry at other people when you’re actually there, in the moment, discussing things with them. Human beings have evolved to respond in particular ways to anger, and they are not ways that promote sensible discussion or that are likely to promote whatever cause you’re discussing. Be angry, but be angry in private, with people who already sympathise. If you’re out there in a public space trying to have a political or ideological discussion, anger is very likely to make you do more PR damage to your cause than it is to help convince anybody that you’re right.

So having touched on feminism, perceptions of feminism, ideas of a feminist establishment, women and pornography, I’d like to know what you think. What does feminism do? What should it do? What has it achieved, and why is it such a negative word in some circles? Can you believe in feminist principles and not be ‘a feminist’? Do you think ‘advocating feminism’ is a better thing than ‘being a feminist’? What do you think of pornography, radical feminist perceptions of gender relations, the fact that there are awards for feminist pornography? Why aren’t there more men writing about feminism? Would you like to borrow copies of any of my Angela Carter books? Let’s have a chat.

Sources Cited

Dylan Ryan, How I Became a Feminist Porn Star

Ruth Pearce, My message to those who would attend RadFem 2012

Anita Sarkeesian, Harassment, Misogyny and Silencing on YouTube, one example of the abuse Anita received during her Kickstarter campaign last year

Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman [1979] (London: Virago, 2009)

Andrea Dworkin, ‘Pornography’ [1981], in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 325-327.

Catharine MacKinnon, ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 351-358.

The Work of the Artist in the Age of Mechanical Representation

I definitely severely stole the title of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for this blog post. Though not directly related, it’s an interesting piece about artistic value and the integrity of its ‘unique existence’ in the face of authentic reproduction – very modernist in its concerns, quite influential in its time.

So I’ve been thinking lately about integrity, and how it’s an underrated value, but one that’s actually quite important in the worlds of both art and business.

It seems to me that though art strives to reflect higher values, it is often inescapably linked with business. Sometimes we speak about art as if it’s been ‘tainted’ by commerce: selling out, throwing money at the problem, corporate budgets for movies – does this render art suspect? When art sells for phenomenal amounts of money, the ‘millions’ thrown around until it doesn’t mean anything, and we blink and go ‘£300,000,000,000?!’ when some Duke sells some Titians and it is amazing that art can be so commercially-valued. Of course, that’s not the only value, but art is always overshadowed by money – the term ‘priceless’, practically a cliché when discussing matters of art, is defined in relation to the cold, hard reality of cash.

I think one of the reasons art is valued by money is because it’s easier to understand, for the majority of people, than the unfamiliar mouthful ‘artistic merit’. Perceiving artistic merit is subjective, so can we all understand it? No. Someone paints a phenomenal picture that most of us could never emulate without years and years of dedicated work: I’m sure we all agree that that’s art. Someone cuts a shark in two: that’s… art?

But also, monetary value seems to detract from art. A cheap plot in a formulaic film has the ability to make megabucks around the world, and it’s not a great work of art because those are expensive to make, have smaller audience demographics and therefore narrower profit margins.

So perhaps we should find a better way of discussing all of this. Because I believe art does touch something in us that’s nothing to do with money, but it always seems to be defined in relation to money. There’s a certain affecting tragedy to artists who died penniless and now their work is phenomenally valued, but are we defining that emotional impact by money or by human pain? Should we be considering money in terms of art? And if we stop valuing art by money, what else is a standard that most people understand?

Your honours, I’m going to call Joss Whedon as my Exhibit A. He has legions of loyal fans, and I wonder if part of it is because he’s retained something in his work that I can only think to call artistic integrity. He’s had a bunch of shows cancelled and Serenity didn’t do so well at the cinema, so his commercial viability was considerably less secure before the phenomenal success of The Avengers, but his writing is always full of fun and heart and charm, and he’s never sold out. He did Dr. Horrible to prove a point, and it was great and heartbreaking and proved its point really bloody well. His work ethic and his work go hand in hand, and what they say about him is that he’s an artist more concerned with art than with money. He’s an artist with integrity, and I think that integrity is seriously important to people’s appreciation of art.

Exhibit B is Amanda Palmer, and the Kickstarter to raise money for her new album and art tour. She asked for $100,000 to go towards the costs of recording CDs and being able to tour in the way she thought was the best way to do it. She was given nearly twelve times that, by nearly 25000 people – her final count was $1,192,793 – and she wrote an amazing post explaining where all the money will go. Everyone who donated to the Kickstarter gets stuff, and they’re also selling stuff like an art book to go along with the album, and they’re touring art galleries as well as doing regular gigs – which sounds AWESOME, but expesnive. Part of what she points out is that the Kickstarter is not a donation, it’s an exchange of her services for money, which is what earning is. And she points out that it’s helping her maintain her artistic integrity:

i’m CHOOSING to tour this way. EXPENSIVELY.

i could send you all cheap-ass jewel case CDs, fire my staff, make a cheap book on xerox paper, and tour just with a solo piano…with no crew, no band….and RAKE IN THE DOUGH.
i mean: i could potentially do that and walk with close to half a million dollars. but the products would suck and the tour would be a solo piano tour. and nobody would ever trust me again.

And if nobody ever trusted her again? It wouldn’t be worth trying to be an artist, because even if she suddenly started producing amazing stuff, she’d have sold out this time, which means she’d have lost her artistic integrity. The point is not to make money, it’s to make art – which is also why her Kickstarter was so phenomenally, wildly successful. Amanda Palmer lives her life on the internet, has a particularly honest and intimate relationship with her fans, and her artistic integrity is practically made of diamond because you know that’s what she is and she’s never going to compromise her love of art simply in order to get money. I seriously think that that’s a fundamental part of why people love her so much – it’s not just her music, it’s that you can believe in her and her love of art in a way that you can’t believe in a corporation, because they have no face and all the money and secretly we think they have an agenda of their own.

So I think integrity is a seriously underrated virtue, and I think it should be celebrated, because it sounds so stuffy and old-fashioned but it’s real. We love things when they’re real, when they have principles that they don’t compromise just for money. I love Joss Whedon and Amanda Palmer because I don’t believe they’ll ever sell out, which makes all of their art more worthy because their art is what they love and what they do. And considering things in terms of integrity is a great way to cleanse them from the taint of commerce.

A love note to literature, and a P.S. with kisses for science

Everybody knows that being an artist isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially since the idea is fossilised in romantic layers truisms about starving for one’s art, or semi-cynical mocking of poetic tendencies and how bloody useless and impractical it sounds that, say, Alfred, Lord Tennyson took ten or so years to write a long-ish poem called The Holy Grail. I’ve heard scientists dismiss what sounds to me like fascinating research into medieval literary traditions as ‘pointless’ and ‘adding nothing real to human knowledge’. To the contrary, I argued, understanding medieval literary traditions broadens our knowledge of history, of religion, of the development of culture, the development of human subjectivity, psychology and of science itself. It was as ‘real’ a contribution to human understanding as studying, say, the evolution of star types (I should probably note at this juncture that both the medieval literary traditions, and the star-types astrophsyics, are the subjects of PhD theses written by friends of mine, who both attended Cardiff University). And that idea of ‘real’ knowledge is a weaselly little bastard, suggesting that some kinds of study are more valid than others but actually validating only the speaker’s view. To someone blindfolded, a tour around the Louvre will be less ‘real’ than the view impressed on them when sight is returned, and to wilfully blind yourself by arguing that some types of knowledge are more valid than others seems appallingly arrogant. To me, though any contribution to human knowledge is important, it’s a little less impressive to be looking a balls of gas billions and billions of light-years away than it is to be studying literature, which I view as a delightful blend of crystallised contemporary culture, imagination and language.

Art reflects life. It has to, in order to generate any meanings with its audience. And art requires an audience, is always painted or performed or screened for an audience. Shakespeare’s histories are full of references to Renaissance culture, because he wasn’t writing to an audience of classicists, he was writing to Renaissance people. Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970), a classic of science fiction, is packed full of adventures in phenomenally futuristic technology – but video is recorded on tapes, which must have made perfect sense at the time but are, of course, incongruously dated now. That’s what I mean by moments of culture crystallised in literature. And that’s one of the things that makes literature so crucial to human understanding – and I don’t just mean ‘art’ literature. I mean everything. I mean music, TV, magazines, pulpy crime thrillers, as well as the off-puttingly judgemental label ‘literary fiction’ – but my issues with literary fiction are an issue for another time.

For scientists (my absolutely not comprehensive, but instead dramatically-appropriate, sample of two scientists both had to be convinced of the value of literature) to dismiss literature as ‘unreal’ strikes me as not just frustrating, but frustratingly arrogant. Another scientist I know once asked me why I thought that literature could say anything about human psychology because the characters were made up. The question absolutely bowled me over. As a student of literature and a teacher of creative writing, I’d completely forgotten that something I took for granted was so unintuitive to someone else trained in a completely different discipline. Literature tells us about human psychology because it was written by a human being. On one level, it really is that simple. Literature tells us about history because it was written by people immersed in history; it tells us about culture because it both responds to and creates culture, be it high culture or popular culture; rinse and repeat for philosophy, sociology, even particular knowledge of science. It can be analysed in any way you like, meaning can be read into it in many ways, some of which are of course more useful and yielding than others, but it is always a contribution to human knowledge – even if that knowledge is a little bit meta, and tells you more about the critic than about the text, because it’s knowledge that is unusually reflexive about the human condition.

What bothered me the most about those exchanges, though, was the fact that they reflected a ‘division’ in intellectual pursuits that I had, innocently, assumed that people had grown out of because I’d grown out of it.

I’ve always believed that science and art are completely complimentary because they cover such different areas of human experience and knowledge. Literature generates a form of analysis that operates entirely outside the scientific method, which is one reason it’s so valuable – because the scientific method sometimes turns up in really peculiar places because people think it’s a better form of knowledge (but anybody who reads XKCD will know how untrue that is). At its most basic, empirical analysis of a book reveals: ink, words, pages, paper. The most casual literary analysis of scientific texts probably provides little more than a comment like ‘you haven’t consistently hyphenated jiggle-mapping’ (a sentence I have had the pleasure of uttering – to my friend who did a PhD in astrophysics, in fact). Physics can tell us truly amazing things about music, how it’s made, why things sound the way they do, but not why people like and dislike different things. The divergence in their interests makes sure that everything is covered, but also the comparison between disciplines, in a way, means that they can keep each other grounded.

This is also going up unedited, simply because I’m sleepy and I was just recording some ponderings. I may come back and tweak it later if it turns out I’ve done that thing where my brain was going faster than my fingers and I’ve missed key words out of sentences.

Monogamy monotony: the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ is not compatible with modern science

The irrational and sinister campaign against gay marriage | Martin Robbins | Science |

(Disclaimer: this has gone up un-edited and not entirely finished because I need to get back to work. I will probably come back to it and tidy it up a little later, but I wanted to post it anyway, so I hope it’s not too appallingly written.)

It’s refreshing to see someone deconstruct what’s actually part of the rhetoric of this discussion rather than simply add opinion to the debate. I feel like it’s reached the point where opinions – while all important and valid – don’t really cut it any more, because otherwise it descends into a shouting match. We need citations and, much as I hate to say it, I think we need some evidence. This OpEd by Martin Robbins is an interesting dissection of the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ manifesto, and it got me thinking.

I think Robbins misses an obvious point. Lord Carey apparently lays out in a Daily Mail article that ‘the honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way’. The thing is… the ‘honourable estate’ really doesn’t ‘precede’ anything.

Here are a choice selection of things that Carey believes (all citations of Carey’s words, unless stated otherwise, are taken from the article above):

‘For thousands of years, the union of one man and one woman has been the bedrock of societies across cultures, all around the world.’

‘The move to legalise same-sex marriage is undemocratic.’

And there’s a picture of two women kissing with Pride flags and bridal veils subtitled ‘Threat: homosexuals in bridal veils kiss in the street. Such communions would jeopardise the stability of our country’.

So marriage as one man and one woman, according to Carey, is universal, fundamental to the stability of society, and democratically-approved. Well, firstly, here is no normative state of monogamy in human society, and there are no normative patterns of sexual selection across the animal kingdom. For one thing, we’ve all heard of the ‘gay’ penguins and the ‘lesbian’ monkeys. (I’d like to point out at this juncture that I’m not able to spend as long as I’d like on this blog post, so I haven’t thoroughly read the two articles above; I selected two from the first page of Google. Poor journalistic practise, but I’m not a journalist and I am on a break from writing my Masters’ papers.) For another, Richard Dawkins notes that across all of life, ‘most species are either polygynous or monogamous, presumably depending on their different economic situations’ (Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale (London: Orion, 2004), p. 214.). If we were to look for primates for some kind of support of our own sexual selective preferences, we’d be stuffed: ‘Among our close relatives, gorillas have a harem-based polygynous breeding system and gibbons are faithfully monogamous. […] Chimpanzees are more indiscriminately promiscuous’ (Dawkins, Ancestor’s, p. 214). No fundamental patterns there. Perhaps more directly relevant to countering Carey’s claim, Dawkins also writes of G. P. Murdock’s work the Ethnographic Atlas, which ‘lists particulars of of 849 human societies, surveyed all over the world’ (Dawkins, Ancestor’s, p. 215). What does this survey show about marriage?

‘Of those 849 societies, 137 (about 16 per cent) are monogamous, four (less than one per cent) are polyandrous, and a massive 83 per cent (708) are polygynous’ (Dawkins, Ancestor’s, p. 215). So it appears that if there is a ‘normative’ pattern, it’s not one that supports Lord Carey’s view that ‘For thousands of years, the union of one man and one woman has been the bedrock of societies across cultures, all around the world.’ I have to cede that this is, technically, true. It’s been the bedrock of 16% of societies. But it is dwarfed, drowned, swallowed as a dainty tit-bit by the amount of societies that favour polgynous relationships over monogamous ones.

So Carey’s emotive rhetoric has absolutely no logical, empirical, biological nor anthropological grounding. By suggesting it is prior to church and state, Lord Carey seems to believe that the state of marriage as one man and one woman is somehow inalienable, will prove self-supporting if the scaffolding of church and state are taken away. But the only things defining marriage as marriage are the church and the state themselves.

If things like ‘rights’ are not inalienable – and they’re not; they have to be recognised and enforced by a state or a society, but the majority of states agree on them, which is why we’re so outraged when they’re violated – then marriage certainly isn’t inalienable, especially not when we know perfectly well that there are plenty of alternative models to marriage that are enshrined in the laws and customs of 83% of the world’s societies.

Another thing that bothers me about Carey’s perspective is that by citing ‘the church’ Lord Carey seems to be invoking a religious group as some kind of naturalised universal authority. In fact, he’s aligning it with the power of the state – but by arguing that if you took it away, marriage would still stand on its own, he seems to be alluding to the fact that not all religious groups have the same views of marriage. In fact, by using ‘the church’, small c, he is glossing over the fact that he means the Church: the Christian and/or Catholic and/or Orthodox Church. The organised, ‘if you don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of God then you’re not one of us’ Church, even with all the splinter groups that don’t hold with the Anglican Communion or the Rome thing. That means that he is disregarding, say, ‘the synagogue’, ‘the mosque’, or ‘the temple’ of the world’s other major religions – which, even with non-capitals, to a citizen of a country where that form of worship is not the norm, the comparison reveals the fundamentally exclusive nature of Carey’s claim, and therefore how illogical it is to claim that matrimony both precedes and somehow stands apart from state and religion. His view is completely centre-blind, mapping the false universals of his own culture onto the rest of the world, which sounds like a post-colonial issue to me.

That might seem to be getting a little far from gay marriage. Well, perhaps it is; but then, perhaps second-wave white feminists should have understood that they didn’t truly comprehend the experience of black feminists (the wonderful bell hooks published a lot of work on this). Peter Tatchell makes the interesting point that there is discrimination both ways in under British law, to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, depending of course on your perspective. He also comments that if this exact issue were mapped onto a racial divide rather than one of sexuality, the discrimination becomes shockingly clear.

Incidentally, Carey also thinks that ‘for many centuries, Britain has known much more stability than most other nations on Earth, and marriage has been essential to our national welfare.’ Wait, wait, I’m sorry. Carey, did you learn about Henry VIII at school? How loudly can you say ‘the Reformation that caused 150 years of civil war was based entirely on a definition of marriage deemed inadequate by one particular king’? Because I can say it pretty loud. In 1529, Henry VIII began charging people with high treason for listening to the Pope above the King, which is the date I’m picking for the start of the Reformation and the century and a half of civil wars that followed it. Yeah, English history likes to give them all different names – ‘the Reformation’, the ‘Catholic Restoration’, the ‘Marian persecutions’, ‘the English Civil War’ – as if there was only one civil war. It was all part of the same problem, and the sequence of wars ended in 1688, in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, which incidentally outlawed Roman Catholicism for a few hundred years. All of it, all of the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants, even the bombs found in Northern Ireland last week, is pretty damning evidence for the idea that marriage is at the heart of ‘our national welfare’.

(Also, I’m not trying to say that Henry VIII redefining marriage was a bad thing because it caused all this, because it’s not. Redefining marriage is A-OK. People taking religion too seriously is what caused all this. But I’ll get on to religion another time.)

So the Coalition for Marriage starts off to deny that gay people getting married is the same as straight people getting married, but along the way, Lord Carey’s ignorance of other cultures and modern science reveals that his view of marriage is dependent wholly on a church and state that, if you look at the evidence, certainly does have the ‘right’ to redefine it as there are no fundamental aspects to marriage that agree with Carey’s view. He also comes across as a little bit racist, because 83% of the world don’t want what he wants and he’s dismissed their ideas as not compatible with ‘the honourable state of matrimony’. Gay marriage won’t jeopardise the stability of the country, because the stability of the country isn’t based on marriage. Gay marriage doesn’t violate any kind of fundamental or inalienable social norm about marriage, because there is no norm. And monogamous marriage is neither precedent to church and state, nor independent of them.

I’m running out of steam, partially because this has turned into a far longer article than I anticipated but mainly I have to get back to writing my MA papers. This is an unedited and imperfect version that doesn’t particularly come to a conclusion (my apologies) but I want to post it anyway, because otherwise I worry I’ll get into endless rounds of edits and that will take more time and people still won’t have seen it and you’ll all believe I spent the lunchtime doing no work.

Incidentally, I can’t in all conscience mention the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ without mentioning the group it is opposing. The Coalition for Equal Marriage is a petition with the view that ‘I support the right of two people in love to get married, regardless of gender. It’s only fair.’ I definitely do.